Professor Emeritus Pekka Niemelä: “Root causes for the loss of nature derive from the Age of Enlightenment"

According to Pekka Niemelä, Professor (emer.) of Biodiversity and Environmental Science at the University of Turku, the accelerating loss of nature cannot be explained by climate change and related factors alone. He suggests that the root causes for the current state of nature derive from the Age of Enlightenment when humankind attempted to establish dominion over nature – with fateful consequences.

Published: 29.9.2021

The rapidly shrinking glaciers, storm disasters, flooding, deadly heat, drought, wildfires and the pandemic are in the headlines almost on a daily basis. The newscasts show how climate change is already making life more difficult for millions of individuals all over the world. And this is estimated to be just the beginning.

Global climate change and loss of nature are tightly interlinked. For both phenomena, the primary underlying factors include the use of fossil fuels, overconsumption of natural resources and over-cutting of forests. Usually these factors are brought up first in any discussion concerning the impoverishment of biodiversity. This interview, however, took a surprising turn: a natural scientist started talking about Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder and the Age of Enlightenment.

What do Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder and the Enlightenment have to do with climate change and loss of nature? The longer you listen to Niemelä, the clearer you see the connection.

“Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE, was a famous writer and a high-ranking officer. His encyclopaedic work, the Natural History, is one of the few literary monuments that have survived from the era of the Roman Empire. In the Natural History by Pliny, humanity is not placed above nature. Rather, the Romans viewed human beings as part of nature, and that’s what we should do as well”, Niemelä explains.


Humans are the weakest link

In Niemelä’s opinion, as far as nature is concerned, things started to develop in an unfavourable direction during the Age of Enlightenment and Utility.

“During that era, the relationship between human beings and nature changed: the Enlightenment philosophers placed humankind above nature. Following the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution resulted in the global exploitation of natural resources through mining and forest industries. The development, with its negative consequences for nature, was to some extent boosted by Christianity, especially the Protestant Church. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are seen as being more nature-friendly”, Niemelä says.

The influence of religions on the concepts of nature and ways of using natural resources is a topic that today draws increasing interest.

“Already in the 1960s, writings were published claiming that the exploitation of nature had become more common along with the Protestant faith. Today, the topic is drawing increasing attention and has resulted in multidisciplinary research. Referred to as ecotheology, the research has brought together natural scientists, archaeologists and theologians.

Ecotheology challenges the status of humankind as the crown of creation and reflects on the relationship of human beings with nature. The focus is on the view that human beings are part of nature and will not survive without it.”

Niemelä has visited Villa Lante, the Finnish Institute in Rome, several times and learned about the religions of Ancient Rome.

“The Ancient tales depict Mother Earth, the creator of nature, as being a cruel stepmother for humanity. Nearly all species are equipped with some faculties to protect themselves against external threats at the very initial stages of their lives. A human newborn is an exception to this rule. The only thing a newborn baby can do is to cry. We are born to this world highly vulnerable and, at the end of the day, we are the weakest link”, explains Niemelä.

Niemelä refers to the consequences of climate change and loss of nature, of which we have already had a foretaste in the form of hurricanes, drought and wildfires.

“We already possess the knowledge and technologies to make the required changes. First, however, we must be able to change our attitudes and relationship with nature. Understanding this is key to a long-lasting change."


"According to geologists, we have entered a new geological epoch, anthropocene. For the first time, human beings have become a geological force that is changing the state of the Earth. Future geologists will identify this turning point when they explore the soil and sediments”, Pekka Niemelä says.



From Ancient Rome to the Kevo fells in Lapland

In addition to the historical viewpoint, Niemelä also approaches nature through art. Together with Art Historian Markku Valkonen, he has co-authored an art book entitled Vaelluksia maisemaan – Taiteen mestarit meren äärellä. This unique volume describes extensively the interaction between natural-historical changes and the fine arts.

Niemelä approaches nature from multiple angles and disciplines, but the primary target of his interest is currently in the Finnish Lapland. Professor Emeritus Niemelä is namely leading a research project aimed to investigate the effects of climate change on nature in Lapland. The research has received funding from the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation and is being carried out at the Kevo research station of the University of Turku.

“More specifically, this is a comparative study to explore the effects of environmental changes on ecological communities in subarctic Lapland, on one hand, and in the Baltic Sea, on the other hand. Besides Kevo, research is being conducted on the island of Seili within the Archipelago Sea, under the leadership of Director of Archipelago Research Institute, Associate Professor Jari Hänninen”, explains Niemelä.

The research was inspired by a meta-analysis that comprised a total of 166 long-term surveys and was published in 2020. The analysis revealed major declines in terrestrial insect abundances and increases in aquatic (freshwater) insect populations.

“As far as water ecosystems are concerned, the results were explained by the eutrophication of waters, whereas habitat fragmentation due to, for example, construction, field agriculture and forestry emerged as an explanatory factor for the development in land ecosystems.”

In the meta-analysis, climate change was not identified as a significant factor, and this led the researchers at the University of Turku to ask some questions.

“Our idea is that the role of climate change could be investigated by using the extensive time-series data from the longitudinal studies carried out in Kevo and Seili. In the Kevo region, the habitats are quite unfragmented, and we have access to a time series of trapped butterfly species that ranges over 50 years and is unique in the world. In this region, with the impacts of habitat fragmentation eliminated, the consequences of climate warming are easier to observe”, says Niemelä.

According to Niemelä, the unique long-term studies conducted in both Kevo and Seili substantiate the importance of systematic basic research.

“Longitudinal studies carried out at the research stations have proven to be worth their weight in gold. Without this material it would be almost impossible to obtain reliable information about the changes that have taken place in climate and the environment over the decades or their effects on the ecosystems.”


Northern species under threat

There is already research evidence available concerning the impacts of climate change on biodiversity in Lapland.

“We have already made several observations that strongly support our hypothesis. For example, we have found that winter moth (Operophtera brumata) populations have increased and subsequently, also the damages caused by them. Along with climate warming, other new pest insects have also entered the region and pose a severe threat to the mountain birches”, Niemelä says.

According to Niemelä, the loss of mountain birch forests would directly affect all populations living on mountain birches, such as butterflies, moths and beetles, and indirectly, insect-eaters like birds.

“The effects advance rapidly and extensively along the food chain. The distortion of one aspect in nature will have multiple impacts. The influence of climate warming is particularly forceful in Lapland. The loss of tundra and palsa bogs would result in severe changes in the ecosystems of northernmost Finland.”

“All in all, the consequences of climate change are surprisingly multifaceted, which is why additional researched information is needed. With the funding granted by the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation, we have the opportunity to deepen our knowledge and provide more evidence-based information about the impacts of climate change. Knowledge alone is not sufficient – our future is determined by our attitudes and actions, in other words, how we take advantage of research knowledge”, Niemelä concludes.


Read more